24 Dec Silence in the Mass
A Meditation on the Low Mass
By Wilson Gavin
Photos by Beverly Stevens and Elrica D’Oyen-Gebert
It is perhaps a little unusual, but the thing I love most about the Latin Mass is silence.
Most traditionalists seem to be drawn to the glory of the High Mass; truly, there is no experience that we can experience on Earth that brings us closer to Heaven. And I do love the High Mass immensely. Nonetheless, nothing touches my soul more than the sweet silence of the Low Mass. True silence is almost impossible to find in the world today, outside of the wilderness. But during the Canon of the Mass, on an early weekday morning, surrounded by a few souls who’ve wandered in from the angry loudness of the world outside; that is where I have my most intensely spiritual moments.
If the High Mass brings Heaven to earth, then it can be said that the Low Mass is the most ancient rite of the Church, preserved in situ for two thousand years. The Apostles and the Martyrs could not celebrate glorious liturgies in awe-inspiring cathedrals; indeed, those were the preserve of the pagans for a very long time. By all accounts, the early Masses said in houses or tombs were not grand affairs. They were simple, austere affairs, but the love and grace present there inspired countless souls to martyrdom.
The silence of the Mass also captures the sadness of the Mass. We can rejoice and be glad over the wonder of our redemption, whilst still remembering the horrific pain and torment which was needed to bring it about. The silence of the Mass reflects Holy Week in its entirety. The silence of the Mass is that of Christ’s agony in the Garden, of His body dead and broken of the Cross, of Him lying anointed like a king on the cold stones of the tomb. That is not something that can be attained through song or loud acclamations; it can only be found in hushed whispers and silent contemplation of the Cross. As Zion lay despoiled and empty, and its people scattered, the Prophet Jeremiah saw fit to write in Lamentations, ‘It is good to wait with silence for the salvation of God’. In a time of wailing and the rending of garments, Jeremiah saw silence as the only deliverance from sorrow. It is only in silence that we can truly ponder the deep mysteries of the Faith. It is a time to heal, and find peace.
I cannot count the number of times when I have gone to a vernacular Mass in a sombre mood (I am most definitely a melancholic) to try and find some measure of peace, only to find an overly exuberant pastor who while at the altar insists that I move from my comfortable pew at the back and introduce myself to the congregation. There is no experiencing more mortifying than to be interrupted whilst kneeling at prayer by the kindly old lady who asks if you wish to serve as lector today. Not particularly, my dear, but because you asked so nicely I shall.
At the Low Mass, everything is so much simpler. You enter the church or chapel, and know that you will not be interrupted until the Last Gospel is complete.
Oddly enough, the Mass which I count as second in my affections to the Low Mass is not the High Mass, but that of the Ordinariate. A dear teacher of mine would often jest that I was more Anglican than Catholic. It’s true; I love the bells and smells, the old hymns and archaic language, and the easy comfort of the Ordinariate Mass almost as much as the Extraordinary Form. It makes me feel rather abashed as a Latin Mass Catholic; I always thought that we had the monopoly on otherworldly liturgy! There is most definitely a reason that the Pope Emeritus saw the music and liturgy of the Anglicans as worth preserving. Still, whilst there is beauty there, transcendent beauty, it just cannot compare to the Mass of the Saint.
The nearest Latin Mass to me at the moment is two thousand miles away, through North Korea and the Gobi desert. I have the Mass still, every Sunday, but it hurts my head. There is never a moment of silence, never a moment for hushed reverence. It seems that Mongolia jumped straight past spectacular liturgy into the joy of sixties hymns. Perhaps that is a little unkind; the priests and sisters here are good Christians who have travelled across continents to spread the Gospel. The congregation is made up almost entirely of converts, whose faces light up when they receive Our Lord in the body and the blood.
But what I wouldn’t trade for a little silent awe! Whenever I attend a Novus Ordo Mass with guitars, corny songs, and clapping, I am reminded of these verses from Kings: “And behold the Lord passeth, and a great and strong wind before the Lord over throwing the mountains, and breaking the rocks in pieces: the Lord is not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake: the Lord is not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire: the Lord is not in the fire, and after the fire a whistling of a gentle air. And when Elias heard it, he covered his face with his mantle”.
The silence of the Mass is the easy silence between the Beloved, and the Lover. The silence of the Mass draws us into the presence of God, so that we may seek Him who our soul loveth. To gaze upon Him in rapt adoration as the priest raises the host, to hear the bells and weep; that is communion in the purest sense. That is love.
WILSON GAVIN was an eighteen year old Australian currently living in Mongolia, where he worked as a teacher when he wrote this in 2016. After falling away from the Faith at an early age, he returned through the Traditional Latin Mass and the ministry of the Carmelites. He was discerning a vocation to the priesthood. Gavin passed away on January 13, 2020 in Australia under unusual circumstances. Please prayer for his soul.